FRIDAY, Dec. 7, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Increased use of electronic medical records and other digital technologies in health care might lead to a significant rise in the number of repetitive strain injuries suffered by doctors, nurses and other medical workers, researchers suggest.
These muscle and joint injuries are caused by improper use of computer devices and poor office layouts, according to Alan Hedge, a professor of human factors and ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"Many hospitals are investing heavily in new technology with almost no consideration for principles of ergonomics design for computer workplaces," he said in a university news release. "We saw a similar pattern starting in the 1980s when commercial workplaces computerized, and there was an explosion of musculoskeletal injuries for more than a decade afterward."
Ergonomics is an applied science pertaining to safe and efficient equipment design.
In one study of 179 doctors, Hedge found that most female doctors and more than 40 percent of male doctors reported that they experienced repetitive strain-related neck, shoulder and upper and lower back pain at least once a week. About 40 percent of female doctors and 30 percent of male doctors reported right wrist pain at least once a week.
The findings were recently presented at the annual meeting of the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Boston.
"These rates are alarming. When more than 40 percent of employees are complaining about regular problems, that's a sign something needs to be done to address it," Hedge said in the news release. "In a lot of hospitals and medical offices, workplace safety focuses on preventing slips, trips and falls and on patient handling, but the effects of computer use on the human body are neglected."
In another study involving 180 doctors and 63 nurse practitioners and physician assistants, Hedge found that more than 90 percent of them used a desktop computer and, on average, spent more than five hours a day using computers.
Fifty-six percent of doctors and 71 percent of nurse practitioners and physician assistants said their amount of computer use at work had increased in the past year. Only about 5 percent of them said they had an "expert knowledge" of ergonomics, and more than two-thirds said they had no input in the planning or design of their computer or clinical workstation.
The study was published in the book "Advances in Human Aspects of Healthcare."
"We can't assume that just because people are doctors or work in health care that they know about ergonomics," Hedge said. "With so many potential negative effects for doctors and patients, it is critical that the implementation of new technology is considered from a design and ergonomics perspective."
Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
While the study found an association between increased used of technology in medical offices and complaints of pain by workers, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about repetitive motion injuries.